Cunning Murrell: The Legend

James Murrell was a 'cunning man' who lived at Hadleigh from 1814 to 1860

Stephen Choppen in his smithy with Cunning Murrell in the background

In 1849, there was a newspaper article involving a case of witchcraft in a village a few miles from Rayleigh. Although James Murrell (and Hadleigh) is not mentioned by name, there are other indications that the article referred to him: ‘A girl in the village had been long subject to fits, and as family consultations and councils traced the mysterious malady to witchcraft, “a cunning man,” celebrated there-abouts, was called in to counterplot the mischievous old hag, who was supposed to be squatted in some dark corner, muttering her spells and enjoying the writhings of her victim.  The conjuror, of course, undertook the job for a consideration, and immediately set the village blacksmith blowing and beating away to manufacture an air-tight iron bottle . . .this was completed, and being filled with parings of the patient’s toe-nails, locks of her hair, and fluid, was placed over a roaring fire. . . . [the witch bottle] jumped out with a loud explosion, blowing away the grate-bars and the fire’.

In about 1890, Arthur Morrison visited Hadleigh to discover more about Murrell. He interviewed his son Edward ‘Buck’ Murrell and the town’s former blacksmith, Stephen Choppen. He also read papers and books in Murrell’s wooden chest. In 1900, Morrison wrote an article in the Strand magazine and published a novel Cunning Murrell about his findings. In this fictional account of Murrell’s life, Morrison called the village blacksmith who made the iron ‘witch bottles’ Steve Lingard.

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  • I borrowed a copy of Cunning Murrell from the reference library in Southend many years ago. (They let me have it for a few days)  Inside the cover was a newspaper cutting saying that Stephen Choppen,the blacksmith had been found hanged in his smithy, I think the date was about 1918, but can’t remember for sure.

    By john dickens (06/08/2015)
  • Intrigued by the recent comment, I searched on line and found the following (although this appeared to be a transcription and I could not verify the date of the article):

    Chelmsford Chronicle – Friday 09 November 1900


    On Saturday the lifeless body of Stephen Choppen, aged 69, was found hanging to a beam in an outbuilding adjoining his picturesque cottage at Hadleigh, near Southend.

    The deceased was a retired blacksmith, and suffered from rheumatic gout. Many years ago he forged the celebrated iron witch bottles for a notorious local wizard named Murrell.

    In these bottles were placed blood, water, finger-nails, hair, and pins. When screwed up air-tight, these bottles were set on fire by means of a “charm” against witches, and frequently burst, thus signalising the destruction of the latter’s diabolical influences.

    Choppen told an anecdote of the first bottle, which he said refused to be welded until Murrell arrived and blew the fire, when all went well.

    Deceased was a superannuated member of the Hearts of Oak Benefit Society. He slept with his grandson, William Choppen, aged eight years, on Friday night, and when he got up on Saturday morning he told the child he was going outdoors. A little later the boy went in search of his grandfather and found him hanging as described.

    George Goodall cut the body down, and Dr. Cosmo Grant pronounced life extinct. P.c. Totterdell reported the facts to Mr. Edgar Lewis, coroner, who held an inquest. It was stated that deceased had suffered great pain in the head.

    Verdict – “Suicide whilst of unsound mind.”

    By Terry Barclay (06/08/2015)

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